A fast-growing body of evidence suggests that fish-source omega-3s support mental health, focus, and capacity.
And some studies indicate that these two key omega-3s – DHA and EPA (especially DHA) – may help deter or ameliorate age-related dementia.
For example, see "Brain Decline Deterred by Omega-3s & Vitamins”, "Omega-3s Linked to Slower Brain Aging”, and other articles in the Omega-3s & Brain Health section of our news archive.
However, it has been less clear whether higher omega-3 intakes (from supplements or fish) can help optimize mental health and function in young adults. Fortunately, that evidence gap has begun to fill, as we reported in "Omega-3s Boosted Performance of Healthy Young Brains”, and "Omega-3s Boost Boys’ Brains in MRI Scans”.
And research is revealing evidence that omega-3s can aid mature brains in middle age: "Brain Health in Middle Age Tied to a Fishy Omega-3” and "Middle-Aged Brain Boost Linked to Omega-3s”.
Now, the results of a small clinical study suggest that omega-3s can boost a cognitive capacity critical to everyone … especially to students and others engaged in learning.
Study co-author Matthew Muldoon, Ph.D., also led or co-authored some of the omega-3/brain studies summarized in the above stories.
As he said, "So many of the previous studies have been done with the elderly or people with medical conditions … can we help the brain achieve its full potential … in our young adult life? We found that we absolutely can.” (UP 2012)
"It is really interesting that diets enriched with omega-3 fatty acids can enhance cognition in highly functional young individuals,” added lead investigator Rajesh Narendarn, M.D. (UP 2012)
Omega-3s boosted young adults’ working memory
In the first study of its kind, University of Pittsburgh researchers found that "working” memory was enhanced in healthy students aged 18-25 years who took omega-3 fish oil (Narendran R et al. 2012).
Working memory is the brain system for temporary handling and manipulation of the information needed for complex cognitive tasks such as language, learning, and reasoning.
(The brain’s so-called "short-term” system memory stores the mental data manipulated within the larger working memory system.)
According to one co-author – neuroscience professor Bita Moghaddam, Ph.D. – "We found that members of this population can enhance their working memory performance even further, despite their already being at the top of their cognitive game.” (UP 2012)
She also admitted to surprise over the results: "Before seeing this data, I would have said it was impossible [for supplemental omega-3s] to move young healthy individuals above their cognitive best.” (UP 2012)
For the Pitt study, 11 healthy young men and women of diverse ethnicity took two grams of omega-3 fish oil – providing 750mg DHA + 930mg EPA – per day for six months.
Their blood was tested before and during the half-year study … in part to confirm compliance with the fish oil regimen.
And before they began taking the supplements, all 11 participants also underwent PET brain imaging.
The participants then performed a working memory test in which they were shown a series of letters and numbers.
The young adults had to keep track of what appeared one, two, and three times prior … evaluation procedures known as "n-back” tests.
Even on the first tests – which took place before the volunteers took any omega-3 pills – the participants who had higher omega-3 blood levels scored better on the n-back tests.
As Dr. Moghaddam said, "This means that the omega-3s they were getting from their diet already positively correlated with their working memory.” (UP 2012)
Final tests show a boost in working memory
After six months of taking prescribed omega-3 supplements daily, the participants underwent a final series of outpatient procedures.
This last working memory test revealed improved working memory among all 11 volunteers.
As the authors noted, their findings fit with prior evidence: "The correlation between n-back performance and DHA levels are consistent with reports in which higher DHA levels are related to improved cognitive performance.” (Narendran R et al. 2012)
Valuably, the Pitt team ruled out one mechanism of action – increased availability of the VMAT2 protein – by which omega-3s were suspected to improve cognitive performance.
More study ahead
This study must be considered preliminary, since it didn’t include a control group, and involved only 11 people.
Ongoing studies in Dr. Moghaddam’s lab indicate that the brain mechanisms affected by omega-3s in teens and young adults may be influenced differently among older adults.
With these needs in mind, the Pitt team said that it would continue to study the effect of supplemental fish-source omega-3s in young adults.
- Narendran R, Frankle WG, Mason NS, Muldoon MF, Moghaddam B. Improved working memory but no effect on striatal vesicular monoamine transporter type 2 after omega-3 polyunsaturated Fatty Acid supplementation. PLoS One. 2012;7(10):e46832. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0046832. Epub 2012 Oct 3.
- University of Pittsburgh (UP). Omega-3 Intake Heightens Working Memory in Healthy Young Adults. October 25, 2012. Accessed at http://www.news.pitt.edu/Omega_3_Fatty_Acids_Memory